Handling the Crucial Car Ride Home from a Kids’ Sports Event

A promising high school swimmer I’ve worked with named Jen had a tough dilemma: she was in the top tier of a very good club swim team, but wasn’t the best. She wanted to improve, trained hard to make it happen and had come to talk to me about how to push past whatever barriers were holding her back. Still, no matter what she did couldn’t help feeling like she was constantly — pun intended — swimming upstream.

Adding to this frustration was her parents’ ongoing commentary about her performance. The minute they’d pile into the car after a meet her mom or dad would rehash it, comparing Jen’s times and results to her teammates’. They’d analyze her strokes and her choices, ask questions like “What were you thinking?” or, “Why didn’t you….?” and give her tips on what she could do to improve next time around.

Though well-intended, these comments left Jen feeling angry. Already exhausted, she struggled to listen without blowing up, “leave me alone!” When she did allow herself to get pulled into the conversation she felt instantly drained, and it seemed like her point of view barely mattered: the times spoke for themselves. In those moments she’d sometimes wonder whether she even wanted to keep swimming at all.

When our kids play competitive sports, we tend to take pride in the hours we spend each week shuttling them to and from practices and games. We shrug off the time commitment and sacrifices youth sports bring as necessary trade-offs in the process of helping our children develop and, we hope, accel as athletes and people.

Rarely does it occur to us that in fact, we may not be doing our kids a favor.

In my work with young competitors, I’ve seen cases like Jen’s over and over again. At their most vulnerable moments such as after games they played poorly or didn’t go the way they would have liked, or even after getting injured, kids find themselves confronted with their parents’ input. All too often, this input comes in the form of criticism and commentary about what they “should” have done better.

The car ride home – whether from a competition or practice – is a particularly touchy time to talk about something so emotionally charged and must be handled with care. Adrenaline is still running high, the pain of loss or disappointment is still raw and everybody’s usually pretty tired.

What’s more, in the car, kids are as good as trapped. As if the in-car coaching weren’t already suffocating enough (“You need to be more aggressive out there!” “When you get it, shoot it!”), there’s literally no way out. I’ve had kids tell me that during these rides they’ve felt like they could hardly breathe. Some have called the car a “mental coffin.”

Parents are frustrated, too. Ironically, even as we attempt to communicate we get little feedback from our kids while in the car. Or what we get is terse and testy, poor quality.

Although hard to admit, the truth is that even our most well-intended comments and suggestions fail to achieve the goal of helping. Instead, we inadvertently create a negative environment at a moment when what our kids really need is the time and space to de-stress and decompress.

Rather than persist, the best thing we can do as parents is to resist the urge to offer feedback and talk instead about anything but the practice or game until an agreed on time later on. After dinner is one example. Doing so will enhance our kids’ confidence and improve our relationship with them. It’ll also bring on a welcome increase in feedback and discussion.

As for Jen, her mental game, her mood, her outlook and performance as a swimmer made a dramatic turnaround soon after she got her driver’s license and was able to get to and from events on her own.



About Dr. Rob Bell

Rob Bell, Ph.D. (drrobbell.com), is the author of several books on sports psychology including The Hinge, Mental Toughness Training for Golf, and NO FEAR: A Simple Guide to Mental Toughness. A sport psychology coach and owner of DRB & Associates, where he works with athletes, coaches and teams on achieving peak performance,  Rob has coached winners during the PGA tour. He has also advised major universities, most recently working with Notre Dame. His upcoming book, Don’t “Should” On Your Kids: Build Their Mental Toughness (2015), co-authored with Bill Parisi, celebrates toughness over trophies and guides parents in strengthening and affirming their young athletes’ capabilities. He is a regular guest on ESPN 104.5 “The Zone” in Tennessee, has appeared on Fox News in Indianapolis and Sirius XM Doctor Radio, and has contributed to Parenting.com.



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